They have done it again to Arthur Watson, proprietor of the Riverside seafood restaurant in West Bay, a holiday harbour near Bridport in Dorset. 'County restaurant of the year' in the Good Food Guide was his sixth accolade from metropolitan food critics in the past 10 years. With Mr Watson abroad, staff braced themselves for the inevitable invasion of gourmets.

'Arthur thought, 'Oh my god. Another onslaught of people, expecting',' said Neil Chilcott, his manager.

In the 20 years since he opened the Riverside amid the caravan parks and fishing boats of West Bay, Mr Watson has become something of an oracle (open all hours for consultation) on how to cope with the dizzying, sometimes devastating, consequences of rave reviews in the food pages of the quality press.

'Hilary Spurling did us first, for the Daily Telegraph, six years ago,' he says. 'Until then we'd only had the Old Codgers in the Daily Mirror saying, 'If you're down Dorset way there's a good place for a really good English breakfast.' It brought some really nice campers over.

'Spurling's piece came on the Saturday before August Bank Holiday. We'd no staff, no energy really at the end of the season to cope with it. We were faced with a phenomenal, totally unhandle-able number of people coming through the door. It almost destroyed us, mentally, physically and every other way.'

Six miles away, in the village of Loders, Roger and Helen Flint of the Loders Arms suffered a similar fate this year after serving Sunday lunch in their five-table dining-room to Craig Brown, food columnist on the Sunday Times, and eight accompanying, problematical children who threw skittles at each other in the bowling alley. On 30 May, his review described the pub's menu ('outstandingly good and weirdly cheap') as superior to that of the five-star Ritz in London.

The Flints, newcomers to the trade (she had been a diplomat's wife, he was a redundant cocoa-crop forecaster), are still recovering. 'From 9am on the day of publication, the phone didn't stop ringing for two weeks,' Mrs Flint says. 'We couldn't cope. We were turning away 50 people a session. This was such a ridiculous thing, comparing us to the Ritz.'

The ability of food writers to test the mettle of a new restaurant with a single column is not confined to the country. In London, the chef at the cavernous former Waterloo fire station, Dan Evans, remains rueful over a glowing critique, in this newspaper on 23 August, by Emily Green.

'I don't know whether to cry or be very grateful,' Mr Evans says. 'As soon as it happened, 300 people walked through the door and it was just impossible to deal with it. It was a nightmare and has been so ever since, like the magician's apprentice in Fantasia, mopping up that endless stream of water; and it's not stopping.

'Fay Maschler (London Evening Standard food writer) will say to you, 'Look, Dan, if you're open for business you're open for criticism', but to do you in the first couple of weeks simply doesn't give the correct impression.

'She did a piece in which it was strongly hinted, 'due to another food writer coming here, I arrived at 10.30 and there was hardly anything left on the blackboard'.'

At the Loders Arms, the problems of stunningly instant fame were even more complex and personal. Looking back today, the Flints are relieved to have passed the Brown brat- pack test. To do so, they had had to retreat to the kitchen, slip off the mask of 'kindness and jollity' (Brown's phrase) and kick something.

Brown's article drew attention to the regulars - valued friends of the Flints - for their manure-plastered boots. One of them, Brown observed, was an 'old crone', gargling bawdy songs over a pint of scrumpy, who looked like Lord St John of Fawsley. Umbrage was taken - a bad thing in a village of 300 souls, where the pub forms an integral part of a delicate social clockwork. Fences had to be discreetly mended.

'Some locals weren't very flattered and a lot of people thought it was very patronising,' Mrs Flint says. 'We were amateurs when we came here a year ago and fairly low on ego, both of us. So it was a tremendous boost to know that one could achieve something and be considered successful and, yes, professional. We coped but probably at the expense of our bodies.

'Another publican said to us after the article, 'Now you can put your prices up', but we didn't do it, basically because we're quite moral. And we had sound advice from Arthur at the Riverside. We said, 'Will it never end?' and he said, 'As long as you maintain standards as reported, business will


Mr Watson, whose flattering reviews have attracted such clients as Mick Jagger, said: 'It's always given us terrible moments after the articles, but the philosophy has to stay the same. We've got a lovely man, Mr Hawkins from Basingstoke, comes here with his mum three times a year, has fish and chips and a glass of beer and they go home again. People like that mean far more to me than anyone.'

Mr Watson has noticed, with dismay, the emergence of a tougher, more gimmicky style of criticism, such as the 'Restaurant Watch' column in the Sunday Times in which readers are encouraged to browbeat restaurants into giving them preferential treatment. 'You clip a coupon from the column which says, 'Attention Restaurant Staff. I'm a Sunday Times reader. I want the best service.' If anyone brought one of those in here, I'd say, 'We aren't going to understand each other. Shall we stop now before we all get into trouble?'

'Food writing has become a major subject. Critics can no longer pretend that they don't know the effect their pieces will have. They've been very good to me - considerate, accurate. People know what to expect.

'If a place is bad and they want to destroy it, that's up to them. But they should think twice before doing something that might damage a little pub. If they create this unmanageable bulging, they're in danger of destroying the very thing they were attracted to in the first place. That's unfair to the proprietors and it's making the writers look stupid.'